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Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Vegging Out: What I Learned From Eating More Plant-Based Foods

Vegetables and fruits on toast - plant-based foods

(Image: Ella Olsson/Unsplash) 

As a vegetarian or pescatarian for my entire adult life, I no longer struggle to find meat alternatives. But certain products, like cheese, yogurt and eggs, remained elusive — a far stretch from the real thing in plant-based form. 

Vegan diets have gone from niche to mainstream with a wide range of plant-based products at our fingertips. While only a small percent of Americans are vegan, the diet has rapidly grown in popularity. Unsurprisingly, the plant-based foods industry is booming. Global sales of plant-based dairy and meat reached $29 billion in 2020 and are expected to climb to $162 billion by 2030.

As part of TriplePundit’s Sustainable Living Challenge, I set out to eat more plant-based foods. When I discovered vegan croissants were just as good as the original, butter-filled pastry, I realized this was a new and improved era of plant-based food. Inspired, I aimed to find vegan alternatives that met my foodie standards. It was surprisingly easy.

Finding plant-based foods

Venturing into vegan land doesn’t need to be overly complicated. As you’ve likely already noticed, many plant-based foods products are commonplace. 

Plant-based milks are nearly ubiquitous, making up 15 percent of all milk sales in the United States. Other plant-based products like butter, yogurt and coffee creamer are also growing in popularity.

Finding vegan options to replace their meatier counterparts is also easier now than ever before. A wide variety of plant-based burgers, chicken, sausage, turkey and even fish exist in most grocery stores. Plant-based substitutes typically contain less protein than meat, but also more fiber and less fat. The taste varies, too — especially if you regularly eat meat.

If you don’t want a meat substitute, a variety of plant-based protein sources exist like tofu, tempeh, beans, legumes, seitan, nuts and many green vegetables. If you like to cook, a quick internet search turns up dozens of sites with mouth-watering vegan recipes. If, on the other hand, you prefer to dine out, vegan restaurants are increasingly commonplace. Even fast-food restaurants now regularly offer plant-based products.

My experience eating more plant-based foods: Starting small with one home-cooked vegan meal a week

My strategy for eating more vegan foods was pretty modest: cooking one vegan meal per week. Even this small change compelled me to reexamine the vegan section of the grocery store and scour plant-based cooking sites.

While I regularly make dishes with meat substitutes or tofu, replacing items like eggs remained a challenge. On one hand, baking without eggs is fairly easy since you can substitute common products like applesauce, bananas and even carbonated water for eggs. However, a replacement for the kind you eat with toast on a Saturday morning was a harder find. I’ve tried store-bought vegan eggs and thought they were a good substitute, but they’re not always available where I shop. 

So, I rolled up my sleeves and tried two eggless scrambles, one made from chickpea flour and the other from tofu. I greatly preferred the tofu option, since it had a better egg-like consistency and more protein. I also made the rookie mistake of combining the two, resulting in a soggy mess I wouldn’t recommend.

When I set out to make a plant-based Italian dish, vegan cheese loomed on the horizon. My past experiences with this alternative were rubbery and bland. Dairy products are hard to replace since they have proteins and fats that are difficult to mimic in vegan form. 

However, this corner of the plant-based foods world has evolved. My grocery store had several vegan cheeses that were creamy and flavorful. My limited forays into vegan pizza also confirmed the gooey delight of plant-based cheese when done well.

While I’ve long used plant-based butter, yogurt remains a sticking point. I still haven’t come across a plant-based variety that I like. With the rapidly evolving vegan market, I’m sure a convincing plant-based yogurt is coming soon. 

The benefits of a vegan diet

If you love cookie dough ice cream and blue cheese as much as me, you may be wondering: Why even bother with vegan products? Turns out, the range of benefits is eye-opening.

For starters, a plant-based diet can be quite healthy. It can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index than those who eat meat. Plus, it’s a good option for people who can’t digest lactose. More than a third of Americans fall into this category, and in other regions of the world, lactose intolerance is much more common.

In addition to human health, vegan diets benefit the environment. Animal products exceed plant-based ones in greenhouse gas emissions. Phasing out animal agriculture over the next 15 years would cut carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 68 percent by the end of the century. Skipping meat and dairy would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half the amount needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. That’s the minimum threshold required to avert the worst effects of climate change.

In addition to its sizable carbon footprint, animal agriculture takes up a lot of turf. The vast majority of U.S. farmland is used to produce meat and dairy. If all Americans switched to a plant-based diet, nearly 25 percent of our land could be used for other purposes. But such a switch would require an increase in irrigation by 5 to 15 percent.

Finally, livestock and dairy farms also produce large amounts of waste — fueling water pollution and fish kills in surrounding areas. However, even plant-based diets vary in quality. Those high in refined grains, fruit juices, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages have worse outcomes for the environment and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease versus those based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, tea and coffee. 

Eat your veggies

Consuming more vegan options reminded me of one of the unexpected benefits of being a vegetarian: exploring new recipes, foods and cuisines. Plus, I realized there was a whole array of vegan products and dishes that I’d been missing out on. 

Eating lower on the food chain is a choice that’s good for our health and the planet. As a result of this little experiment, I realized that doing so is easier than ever before.

Ruscena Wiederholt headshot

Ruscena Wiederholt is a science writer based in South Florida with a background in biology and ecology. She regularly writes pieces on climate change, sustainability and the environment. When not glued to her laptop, she likes traveling, dancing and doing anything outdoors.

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